The Elegy Beta by Mischa Willet
Mockingbird Press, 98 pages, $12 paperback
No one, apart from a few oddball formalists, wants to write light verse. James Tate maybe but he is dead. Simon Armitage, sometimes, but the English are a different matter. On the whole American poetry is very serious business indeed—a business that is not publicly traded. That is, the self remains the predominant concern for most poets, even for the sort of lefty “political” poets for whom everything is political. Our poets narrate the alienated self in the face of an oppressive superstructure. Or else, inheritors of Milton, they construct a private language intended to convey some unutterable personal experience in the midst of political turmoil. My own poetry, I daresay, is probably self-absorbed and certainly without much humor.
This should surprise no one. We still live in the industrial world which alienated the Romantic poets in the first place. As W.H. Auden observed in his introduction to the Oxford Book of Light Verse “The problem for the modern poet, as for every one else to-day, is how to find or form a genuine community, in which each has his valued place and can feel at home.” According to Auden, in societies marked by social cohesion (pre-Elizabethan England and the Restoration are his exemplar eras), the poet is less self-conscious and more able to genuinely speak in a popular idiom about everyday observations. He takes for granted what he and his audience have in common. In unstable or even pluralistic societies, the poet stands outside society. He cannot put on what Auden calls “his singing robes.” He cannot entertain nor take common experience for granted.
All this by way of preface to say that Mischa Willet’s new book of poems The Elegy Beta is a book of Audenesque light verse. I realize that this is tremendous cheek. But in an age of sad poems it takes a strong poet to risk lines like this:
This year, I had three grandmothers
die, which is not sad,
because, with baking lasagna
and crocheting night-time hats
for children I don’t have, it’s
what grandmas do.
Irreverent. Colloquial. Unexpected. And daringly funny. I once read in a Creative Writing handbook that one should use words like ‘grandmother’ rather than ‘grandma’ in a poem because they carry more weight. Hmm. Willet is also willing to take for granted that his readers’ grandmas also baked lasagna and crocheted superfluous hats. And thus, I do not need to explain the joke. There is also a delightful poem about the sort of typeface used in a note to tell someone he cannot make it to a wedding in Long Island (why is Long Island funny? It just is).
The whole book is marked by wordplay that flirts with frivolity (again in the Audenesque sense). This comes out most evidently in Willet’s use of internal rhyme:
Finally sick of the shake
my hands take, like winter
were some absurd coffee break
meant to keep me drinking,
I bunch them into yarn sleeves.
He is clearly having a lot of fun with the language. Though there are moments when it tires the ear. Occasionally, one gets a sense of hysteria in these obsessively repeated sounds:
Have the whole Earth heave
and scream at your verdant birth;
bring in your train the bright green
lips of leaves, the lengthening day,
the suggestion of sex, a mess;
wreck the hard and frostbitten ground
your trillion shoots; break through,
crown, come in like a tooth
into a world sore, into the ache
There’s a kind of laugh-so-you-don’t-cry postmodernism at work here. This poem, called “Another Advent”, concludes with more than a note of desperation and an oblique reference to the “O Antiphons”:
come save the stupid, drooped
stems of our hearts before they wilt
by the Earth’s cataclysmic tilt,
Primavera, evergreen hope,
A poet who I am not at liberty to quote once asked (rhetorically) of Hopkins “why are you making all that noise?” Hopkins and Willet may well give the same answer. He is making such a racket to point to a dis-ease that is just below the surface, which we will see more clearly in the book’s title sequence.
The main part of the book is the sequence of ten poems “The Elegy Beta,” a riff on the Duino Elegies of that most serious of very-serious-poets, Rainer Maria Rilke. As the self-deprecating title indicates, this is not an entirely reverent take on the classic. Good. The sequence is full of the poetic O, “O lover, we have suffered/ so much wonder” and exclamation points “And all before summer!” Both of which devices are read in our postmodern context as humor. The strongest of these ironies, though, is Willet’s use of Rilke’s phrase “Jeder Engel ist schrecklich”—“Every angel is terrifying.” The overblown, earnest rhetoric of the phrase renders it funny in its context—an earlier poem in the sequence begins “Afraid of angels, obviously,/ I still know how you/ airborne fatalities are, and/ ask after you.” But like Rilke’s original, Willet seeks to understand how selves relate to other selves, “Alone, as everyone/ of us is, finally” or the two lovers in dialogue who believe “everything obviously exists/ except us.” Later, he introduces Rilke’s idea that humans can be thought of as inhabiting a “double realm,” both living and dead because of the foreknowledge of our own deaths:
We leave life too late usually,
like migratory birds caught
on chill wind. We fall, and hit
the earth like pollen.
Unlike lions, which are perfect
and perfectly sure, we are essentially between.
The pull is second nature to us.
Though unlike Rilke, Willet is not ultimately afraid of the perfection of angels. He can turn our morbid foreknowledge into Christian hope. He does not require of art, as Rilke does, that it bring the dead back to life and thus he can afford to risk humor and downright frivolity.
To paraphrase another one of Auden’s critical insights, there is nothing worse than a mediocre poem that has tried to be great. Similarly, there is room for surprise when we approach a poem whose stakes appear to be quite low. Confronted with the lightness of Willet’s verse (and its self-deprecatory title) we lower our guard. We’re on to Rilke, our guard is up. Willet’s insights, meanwhile, bypass our defense mechanisms. Incidentally, this is why James Tate worked mostly in prose. The critic William Logan somewhat ambivalently dubbed him, the “crown prince of goofball poetics” but recalled with approval a reading in which the audience laughed out loud. With Tate gone, we could use more of that.
Whoever lamented that tragedy was impossible after the resurrection was probably full of it—but it certainly has ennobled comedy. Light verse is not a byword. It is not unserious. Willet and other poets like him are in good company. According to Auden’s definition, both Chaucer and Lord Byron are considered light. It should be a sign of hope that in 2020 such a serious book of light verse should appear, though I would not be so bold as to suggest we are not in a time of great social upheaval. For all the hope this book offers, and perhaps because of its hopefulness, it refuses to placate, it wishes that “the right angel would obliterate/ that marketplace where sellers/ hawk tired consolations.”
- I should note that Tate took himself and his work far too seriously to be considered light verse. ↑
- W.H. Auden “Introduction”, Oxford Book of Light Verse, (Oxford: Oxford University Press). ↑
- Rainer Maria Rilke “The Second Elegy”, Duino Elegies. ↑
- from his inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, “Making, Knowing, Judging.” ↑
- William Logan, “Down by the Old Mill Stream”, The New Criterion, June 2019. ↑